The grief of loss.


My great-grandfather was a tower of a man. More than six foot tall with hands like hams. They used to call him “The Big Un'” - the big man- the Bewdley giant who suffered no nonsense from any man, even if they wore a police unform. He was a brawler, a battler, undoubtedly a boozer and he worked his strong body, as a farm labourer, rope maker and leather worker for most of his life, for a few shillings a week. A life of struggle, hard physical work in the good times and unemployment in the bad.

In the weeks following that cold day in January 1915, the big man could take no more. A chaplin and naval officer had knocked at the door at 44 Lax lane .They told my great-grandmother Rosa – that the apple of the family's eye, her favourite son, was dead. John Bishop, the 16-year-old, who had left hearth and home for the North Sea just weeks before, was not coming home. He was “lost at sea” after the disappearance of HMS Viknor on Janaury 13, somewhere off the coast of Ireland.

A few days later, one of Jack’s 10 surviving ship mates – who had escaped narrowly the sinking of the Viknor by being placed on a prize crew – arrived at Lax Lane. The shipmate who knocked on the door had promised Jack he would do so in the event of death. With him, this sadly nameless shipmate, brought a chocolate tin with pictures of the royals on the box  containing the few personal effects of Jack.  A batch of cigarette cards and the writing desk survive in my possession to this day.

As the seaman told of Jack's last days, the big man broke down and wept like a child.

“Why Jack ? Why Jack ?” said John Bishop over and over again as he wept before his family, probably for the first time in his life. The children stood with tears in their eyes and told the story to their own children decades later.

That was it for the big man. Although he always left the back door unlocked in the hope that Jack would arrive home, with a tale of being washed up on the shore somewhere – he knew in his heart of hearts that his beloved boy had gone, worse still, the big man knew he was partly to blame.

John Bishop, already a drinker, hit the bottle as a pain killer– as much as a bottle of whiskey-a-day according to family memories – and died of cancer of the stomach in 1927; a pained man. He was buried at  Ribbesford Church and on his tomb was the name of his son – Jack. Like many families who lost people in the First World War, the Bishops did not have a body to bury.

At the end of the war a “Dead Man's Penny” - that is a bronze disc emblazoned with a Britannia with a lion at her heels – was delivered to Lax Lane, along with a scroll, in honour of Jack. The legend reads: “He died for freedom and honour.” When the penny came out there was controversy as some people felt the depiction of a British lion devouring a German eagle was too warlike for the peace era. I doubt very much that my family ever objected.

The family heard little else about Jack's demise, through official channels, they knew little about how he died and probably nothing of the controversy and drama that surrounded it.

In the 1920s a metal war memorial was built, on the side of St Anne's Church in the centre of Bewdley, bearing Jack's name among the fallen of town. When I was a small boy, my grandfather , Eric, and I walked from his house in Kidderminster to Bewdley to visit my roots. We stood hand-in- hand in front of the memorial, while my grandfather told me the tale of his long lost brother. He always sounded sad and a bit later he gave me Jack's writing case as a family heirloom. It sparked a life-long interest in Jack's short life and death. On summer nights, when I was a teenager, after an evening in a Bewdley pub, I would make a detour through the darkened streets of the town, so I could walk past the memorial. I used to touch the letters of Jack's name, out of respect and wonder – why ? .

In the following chapters I hope to explain. For this we have to go right back to the beginning.


Written by Chris Bishop